A recent furor in Canada has turned the attention on religion in prison. The issue is whether religious services should be provided at taxpayer's expense and then, whether it should be for Christian faiths only. The government's approach makes sense: hire one chaplain and let him/her administer to all.
Rare is the prisoner who has not been there before, who will not be back inside soon enough after release, who will turn over a new leaf and who at all events, would change because of religion. Besides, religion cannot create a soul from a conniving, criminal mind no matter how many amens are professionally administered.
In the stream of religious rights for criminals, some prisoners know a good thing when they see it and turn nutty civil libertarian, demanding access to rights that do not meet any genuine need and he or she most certainly forfeited upon the commission of the crime for which they are in jail. That debate need not go too far but for every ten self-serving jail-house civil libertarian, there is at least another one on the other side.
No case is a perfect Petri dish but the Church of Asatru of the Augusta prison in Virginia certainly bears heeding.
Michael Lenz was executed by injection July 27, 2006 in Virginia's death chamber for having killed a fellow inmate in 2000.
It took six years to flush all the way through the criminal justice system in the United States and carry out the sentence, six years of life not afforded to his victim.
Needless to say, there was a plethora of last-minute demands to stop the execution all of which were based on alleged constitutional issues with the trial.
But there is some humor in the saga.
Lenz, in 2000, was a longtime resident of the Augusta Correctional Center, but not just any longtime resident. He had a record of crime that started when he was a teenager. He was serving a 29 year sentence.
Perhaps because he was bored or perhaps because he was busy setting up a legal defense that might come in handy, Lenz was a practitioner, even a priest of … wait for it … Asatru.
Asatru is such a bizarre religion that you could readily rely on whatever description the anonymous writers of Wikipedia might offer up for it. No description would be too wacky and few could do it injustice.
In a nutshell, it is a derivative from the ancient Vikings and their worship of now comic-book supreme beings such as the hammer-throwing, Marvel hero (and trade-mark), Thor™.
Spiderman™, apparently, did not qualify.
Anyway, Lenz, surely with the best of intentions, start a chapter of Asatru in his prison which he called Ironwood Kindred. Not a bad name: kindred as in brotherhood.
The Real Shocker
Here's the real shocker behind the story. It turns out that Ironwood Kindred was not just about throwing heavy hammers while recanting a version of the ten commandments ... or doing good things for others but it was really simply a front for a prison power cell.
Inevitably, Ironwood Kindred and reverend Lenz rubbed another group the wrong way. Lenz, as would any well-intentioned inner-prison chaplain, convened a prayer group, using the word "prayer" loosely.
Viewer warning: this makes some of the spats seen previously at the local church seem like child's play. When prison churchfolk have a spat, they really have a spat.
Father Lenz asked one of the leaders of the rival group, Brent Parker (not related to the Parker family of Spiderman fame) to approach the altar. Parker was … and pardon the pun … no choir boy. He was in jail on a 1985 murder conviction.
There Lenz and another inmate (Jeffrey Remington) stabbed Parker 68 times. Even when a guard who ran to the scene ordered them to stop, they continued stabbing Parker.
One more time, and they could have had a number often associated with the devil.
They never did comment as to why they did not use their holy instruments, a hammer, as opposed to a knife. But they did say that the killing was premeditated given that Parker had committed blasphemy of the pagan religion; that the killing was necessary to protect the honor of the Nordic gods.
Both Lenz and Remington were charged with murder and both were convicted. Remington did not take the conviction well: he committed suicide by hanging himself with a bed sheet.
Lenz was moved to death row and there, and for this we are not sure whether we can credit him or his attorneys, came up with some very creative arguments on appeal.
Lenz claimed that the jurors had not been impartial because they had been exposed to Christian dogma during the trial. There had been a Bible in the courtroom and, he argued, or at least he alleged, that the Bible had actually being opened in the courtroom and even by jurors during their deliberations. Clearly, Lenz argued, that was undue influence. At the very least, he had a right to know just what the Christian God and those jurors were talking about.
There was more to his appeal of course. One of his other claims, and we have not made this up, was that the sentence was improper because one of the jurors, a Ms Anita J. Durrett, was improperly seated. This was also the juror who consulted the Bible in the jury room during sentencing deliberations.
Again, with no embellishments, Lenz' claim got even better. Forced to explain why the Bible was a problem in this case, he of course argued that the interference of the Christian God constituted extraneous influence and a form of jury tampering.
The Courts (because it ewas ultimately appealed up to the United States Supreme Court) heard him patiently and came to the inescapable conclusion that:
"… the petitioner failed to carry his burden of showing an extraneous contact with the jury about the pending sentencing decision such that the integrity of the jury's verdict was reasonably drawn into question."
Of course, as is customary in these cases, Lenz' approach to the appeal of his death penalty sentence was to throw in many more grounds for appeal but none of them stuck. Later, he raised a new grounds, also ultimately unsuccessful, that the use of lethal injection was unconstitutional.
When he was executed by this very form, lethal injection, on July 27, 2006, Lenz had declined a final meal and offered no final words. The local press were invited to the event:
"Lenz, dressed in a light blue shirt and dark blue pants, was brought into the execution chamber at 8:56 p.m., flanked by several guards. He did not look at witnesses seated in the viewing booth and his expression remained blank as the execution team tightened a series of leather straps around him, securing him to the gurney. The lethal drugs began to flow into his veins at 9:03 p.m., causing him to gasp sharply. He took several deep breaths before his body went still. Lenz met with his mother and two uncles for two hours Thursday afternoon. He made no last meal request. Parker's mother, Bonnie Parker, said she is ambivalent about the execution…."1
Caveat emptor, with a heavy Christian bias, one approach might be to take all those that have publicly asked for more religious services in jail to step up and pay for it.
Perhaps they can get a lottery license for it.
Or host a charity golf tournament and see how many come.
Likely, the new wing of the local hospital might have a few more takers.
- Gelineau, Kristen, Executed For Slaying a Fellow Inmate, The Daily Press, July 27, 2006 (NOTE 1)
- Lenz v. Commonwealth, 544 S.E.2d 299 (2001)
- Lenz v. Warden, 579 S.E.2d 194 (2003)
- Lenz v. Warden of the Sussex I State Prison, 593 S.E.2d 292 (2004)
- Lenz v. Washington, 444 F.3d 295 (2006)
- Rondeaux, Candace, Virginia Man Executed For Killing Inmate, Washington Post, July 28, 2006